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The Disproportionate Effect of Anemia on Women in School - Keerthi Padmanabhan & Sophie Umansky

Anemia is more common than most realize, and its effects on the world can be seen virtually in any setting - including in the classroom. A lack of iron in the bloodstream can have adverse effects on students in regards to their education as one study published by the National Institute of Health demonstrated. In the study, 1,787 South African children from ages ranging from 4 to 6 years old who either had anemia or another illness related to malnutrition performed poorly on assessments compared to students who were iron-replete. Further, in another study conducted with 300 University students from Bangladesh, 55.3 % of students were reported to have anemia, and 63.3% of the anemic students were female. Many studies such as this one have shown that when it comes down to anemia and education, women are disproportionately affected by the disease. A possible cause for this is that women experience a drop in their iron levels after menstruation and often do not make up for the lost nutrients in the form of an iron-rich diet. As a result of this “iron-deficit,” they experience the effects of anemia.

Some of the major effects of the disease are fatigue and weakness in one’s body. This can shorten a student’s attention span, motivation to learn, as well as their behavior inside and outside the classroom. However, the problems that arise with anemia can be fixed through nourishment with iron-rich foods. In fact, iron supplementation is linked to improved concentration and test performance in schools. Young women are affected by anemia most; studies have shown that teenage girls with iron deficiency are twice as likely to have below average math scores in comparison to those with normal iron levels. The effects of anemia on students are prevalent, and students should not be put at a disadvantage due to their inaccess to proper nutrition.

This leads to the importance of incorporating iron rich foods into the diet, which is especially important for teenage girls who inherently require more iron than their male counterparts. Scientists and doctors recommend that students are conscious of the iron and nutrient content in the foods they eat, as anemia is common in adolescents. While vegetables such as kale and spinach are effective in preventing anemia, they have been shown to have chemicals that block absorption. Nevertheless, it is possible to receive iron from these foods with the help of Vitamin C, which increases the absorption of non-heme(from plants and grains) iron into the bloodstream. Meat and flour result in better absorption and are recommended for consumption as well.

However, nutritional anemia due to iron deficiency is not the only cause of poor classroom performance. Anemia due to a deficiency in Vitamin-B12 which is needed to make red blood cells is also common. Vitamin-B12 is required to make red blood cells, and thus to deliver oxygen throughout the body. In the short term, Vitamin-B12 deficiency can cause weakness, fatigue, and weight loss, but a severe deficiency could even result in damage to the heart, brain, lungs and other vital organs. The good news, however, is that it is relatively easy to maintain proper levels of Vitamin-B12 through diet and supplements. Vitamin-B12 is found in meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products and fortified cereals.

Because of the weakness and fatigue caused by a Vitamin-B12 deficiency, young individuals who suffer from it are more likely to fall behind their peers in their school work and have poorer test performance.

The bottom line: anemia due to iron and Vitamin-B12 deficiency in students, more specifically women, causes poorer classroom performance and could even result in neurological damage. Fortunately, it too can be rectified with proper nourishment and an iron and Vitamin-B12 rich diet.

The table above is from a study that took place in central India and rural India with adolescent women who were currently in school. The study measured the effect of nutritional deficiencies such as as iron deficiency on the test scores of female students. As evidenced by the graph, students who suffered from nutritional anemia from a lack of iron had lower scores on tests assessing mathematics than those of other students.


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Getty Images, Hindawi

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